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U.S. Astronauts Will Miss Mir, But Say Time Has Come : Crew: The seven Americans who worked on the Russian station feel nostalgic over its demise, but they look forward to the NASA-led international project that will succeed it.

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

They endured a fire and crash, breakdowns and blackouts, sweltering heat and noxious fumes.

One came back noticeably thinner, another looking skeletal, thanks to rations on the space station Mir. A third struggled with depression.

Once back on Earth, more than one vowed never to return. Three promptly quit the astronaut corps.

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But as Mir finally begins to wind down, with its last crew leaving and a fiery plunge planned for early next year, the seven Americans who lived on the venerable Russian station to help NASA prepare for a new space station can’t help but feel a little nostalgic.

Sure, they’ll miss Mir, or at least miss knowing Mir is there. But it’s high time, they say, for a new house in the sky: the NASA-led international space station.

“It’s sort of like if you’ve lived in a house and you’ve really enjoyed living in the house and maybe your kids have been born there,” says NASA astronaut Shannon Lucid. “But then there comes a point in time when you need those extra bedrooms and you need to move.”

Lucid lived on Mir for six months in 1996 and, in doing so, set a space endurance record not only for Americans but also for women worldwide.

A biochemist in her 50s with grown children, Lucid was the only American woman on Mir. Her craving for M&Ms; and potato chips and her delayed homecoming--she spent more than six extra weeks in orbit because of problems with her shuttle ride home--endeared her to everyone.

“Any time that you leave someplace, obviously you’re more than anxious to get home. But you do feel a certain sadness,” Lucid says. “I sort of feel the same way about the thought of Mir reentering the Earth’s atmosphere and burning up. Mir has been a very historic part of space travel, and I think you’ll feel a sense of loss when Mir comes down.”

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David Wolf also will be sorry to see Mir go, even though he says it’s time the Russians focus their scarce resources on the international space station, a work in progress 250 miles in the sky.

“It’s like maybe a place you used to live. You may never go back, but you always know you could,” says Wolf, who stayed on Mir from the end of September 1997 to January 1998. “The grape juice spill I got all over the wall--I’d be able to see the stains. A few things that I fixed up there, I’d be able to go see how they held out.”

The first American on Mir, Norman Thagard, came across as a whiner after he arrived in March 1995. But the truth is, he sat on Mir for almost two months with virtually nothing to do, waiting for his experiments to arrive on the Spektre module. Originally scheduled to attach to Mir before Thagard’s arrival, Spektre was not launched until that June.

NASA had underestimated the psychological hardships of training for a year in Russia, conversing in Russian, then living with Russians on their space station.

Thagard returned from almost four months aloft looking anemic and haggard. He’d lost muscle. By year’s end, he’d resigned.

John Blaha, the only test pilot and nonscientist of the bunch, also suffered on Mir. He replaced Lucid and spent the first month of his four-month mission in a depression --he badly missed his wife of 30 years, back home in Houston.

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He says he finally told himself: “This is crazy, John. You need to get happy that you’re here again” in space. “I realized that I was clinging to Earth, so to speak. I psychologically cut the cords with all those things that were on the planet that I couldn’t have. . . . Once I did, I really enjoyed the Mir space station. I was happy to get up in the morning and go to work.”

Next came Jerry Linenger, who battled two-foot flames from a burst oxygen generator in February 1997, then English-American Michael Foale, who four months later found himself trying to save the ruptured station after a near-catastrophic collision with a cargo ship.

Within months of returning to Earth, Blaha and Linenger followed Thagard out the door.

Wolf relieved Foale in September 1997 after considerable debate over whether Mir was safe. A female astronaut should have followed Foale, but was bumped for being too small for a Russian spacewalking suit, necessary for outdoor repairs. Wolf spent most of his time doing maintenance and repairs on the insufferably hot space station. He returned 20 pounds lighter.

Australian-American Andrew Thomas closed out the shuttle-Mir collaboration in June 1998. In all, the seven astronauts spent a total of 907 days on Mir.

Although some of the seven American volunteers had it tougher than others, “it was certainly not easy for any one of them,” says NASA’s Jim Van Laak.

“They did not anticipate before the mission . . . how hard they had to work or how deep they had to go within themselves to be successful. But they all did, and all grew as a result of it.”

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